I watched about an hour of last night’s Democratic debate and I came away with a memory of long ago watching some juggler on the Ed Sullivan show who amazed the audience with his ability to spin plates on the ends of poles. He was able to keep what looked like a dozen of them going all at once and then perform great feats of legerdemain by keeping them going without crashing; just as one was about to tip and fall he’d catch it and get it going again just in time to catch another one that was teetering on the brink. He always kept his cool, but you could also see that he was very, very busy, keeping everything going. Sometimes he’d get really creative and juggle some apples at the same time, even taking a bite out of one as it went by. The audience — both in the theatre and at home — held their breath as they all wondered if one of the flying pieces of crockery would tumble and crash, but even though it was live TV in living color, it never happened. What was most impressive, though, was at the end of the act he was able to collect them all with a flourish and take a deep bow just as the orchestra came to a big “ta-da!” and he bounced off the stage to wild applause.
That old vaudeville routine came to mind when I was watching Sen. Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate. She seemed calm, cool, but very busy as she balanced and spun the plates of Iraq, Iran, Social Security, privacy, health care with only the occasional wobble, the perturbations caused by the other Democrats on the stage, notably Sen. Barack Obama and John Edwards. She handled them pretty well, and I agree with Joan Walsh at Salon; these were valid arguments and interesting disagreements, and pretty much devoid of the cheap shots for the sake of a sound bite or a laugh line. That is the one thing the GOP does better, but they’ve had a lot more practice at it.
If anything, last night’s debate solidified Sen. Clinton’s status as the front runner, not just in the Democratic primary but in the general election. As she’s noted, all of the debates in both parties are focusing on her…and even, on occasion, on her positions on the issues. (Imagine that.) No one went out of their way last night to attack Bill Richardson on his position on Social Security and I don’t remember hearing anyone else bring up Joe Biden’s plan for partitioning Iraq for the simple reason that no one really believes that anyone other than Sen. Clinton has more than a fifty-fifty chance of winning the nomination. Even the Republicans are in on this; they spend all of their time going after her because they really can’t come up with anything else. They certainly can’t defend their own party’s performance over the last eight years, and since they’re so desperate to stay in power and cling to any relevancy at all that they’re throwing in with Rudy Giuliani, all they’ve got left is to go on the attack after the one sure thing they know is red meat to their wavering base: Hillary Clinton.
So there she was last night, doing a pretty good job of spinning the plates and juggling the apples with only an occasional wobble. But the trick, of course, isn’t just the performance; it’s getting to the end of the act with the wild finish and the triumphant “ta-da!” We’ll know soon enough.
PS: I do think that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when we start getting questions about UFO’s. When you start pandering to that base, you can pretty well figure the show’s over.